Kenneth Johnson: Always on the Move

Demographer Kenneth M. Johnson explains how age and lifecycle patterns influence human migration trends.

September 18, 2013

You coauthored a report for the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute showing that major metro areas in the Northeast and Midwest are losing older adults, while rural areas are losing young adults. Are such patterns cyclical?

One key point is the consistency of the signatures—the signature being the age migration pattern for one kind of place, such as big urban cores. The age groups that are losing and the age groups that are gaining the most are consistently the same [over 30 years]. In the 2010 period, the recession really slowed migration down. But for the groups that are moving into the urban cores [emerging and young adults up to age 29] and the groups moving away from the urban cores [adults over 50], that pattern is pretty consistent through time.

Are there exceptions?

Yes, recreational and retirement counties have experienced a migration signature change. The inflow of older adults into these areas [Florida, the Ozarks and Great Smokey Mountains, Upper Great Lakes] has really picked up through the decades.

Did anything surprise you in these migration patterns?

One of the things I was looking at carefully was how the whole decade played out once we went through the three years of recession. If anyone had told a topographer like me in the middle of the decade that Florida would experience out-migration—that more people would move out of Florida to other U.S. destinations than move into Florida from other U.S. destinations—I would have told them they were crazy. Florida was gaining 200,000 to 250,000 domestic migrants (not counting immigration) a year. But in 2008 or 2009, Florida actually lost domestic migrants for the first time since 1946. That’s a dramatic change in the migration patterns.

You have found death rates are exceeding birth rates in some areas. How will that affect home construction or home sales trends?

Natural decrease doesn’t happen all of a sudden. It’s an accumulation of a long pattern of change. In many of the fast-growing counties of Florida, populations are still growing because of the inflow of older adults, but many of them have natural decrease because, in addition to the aging of their own population, they have people [arriving] in their 60s. At first that’s fine, and those people buy houses and growth continues. But because they are older, the mortality rates are going to be high. I can see real estate people just scratching off counties with natural decrease when, in fact, some of those counties could remain good, promising markets.

The experience of a rural farm county would be very different than a retirement county in Florida or the Ozarks or in northern New England. Natural decrease doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a promising area—and natural increase doesn’t always mean it is a promising area. The impression I get from the sophisticated real estate people I’ve talked to is that they are confident that if they understand the demographic profiles, there may be robust markets out there that may not be evident to someone else. Take a serious look at all the demographic data; don’t just have a knee-jerk reaction to one statistic or another.

Will the recent recession have a long-term impact?

I’m closely watching the migration stream into those [recreational] counties as the economy improves. There are a lot of older adults in their 50s and 60s who were thinking about moving to these places but didn’t because the recession discouraged them from trying to sell their homes or convinced them they better stay in the labor market longer. As that subsides, is there a pent-up demand to move into those areas? Or have people been permanently discouraged and feel it’s better for them to stay put?

Kristin Kloberdanz, a California-based freelance writer, contributes to TIME Magazine and other publications.